During my years of teaching conflict resolution in China, numerous people said to me, “I don’t have conflicts with others.” Being an American, the comment puzzled me. I wondered, how is it possible to never be in conflict with others? Don’t we all have conflicts? I started to wonder if we defined conflict differently.
One day when meeting up with a group of students to discuss conflict and peacemaking, I had an “aha” moment of understanding. A student described conflict as an explosion, an eruption between two people that results in a shameful breakdown of relationship. I thought to myself, if this is what people think conflict is, then the assertion that some people don’t have conflict with others now makes sense to me! I began to see that, conceptually, conflict only exists when action is taken—when someone visibly explodes. That’s conflict. Yet biblically speaking, I have understood conflict as starting in an unseen place first: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1). I began to wonder, where does the “explosion and shame” view of conflict come from?
I found roots to an answer when researching what Confucius had to say about conflict:
- “Conflict can always be avoided if one strives to conform with nature by cultivating one’s understanding and adjusting one’s action in a proper way with respect to a propitious time.”
- Conflict is “indicative of the weakness of an individual or a community of individuals in their failure to appreciate the intricacies of change and consequently to control or discipline themselves for making conformity to nature possible.”
- “Any conflict that one experiences in society is basically that between the self-interest of petty persons and the good virtues of the superior man.”1
Essentially, Confucius indicated that only weak, petty people who are self-interested and fail to control or discipline themselves—who fail to live in accord with natural laws—have conflicts with others. So, if you are in conflict with someone else, this indicates weakness and selfishness. Since no one wants to be seen as weak, petty, selfish, and undisciplined, people subconsciously avoid any outward demonstrations of conflict as much as possible.
This is a big deal. Culturally speaking, one of the implicitly understood differences between a morally superior and an inferior person is whether one engages in visible conflict with others. Practically speaking, this means that, when in a Chinese cultural context, if I openly go into conflict with someone or openly acknowledge that conflict exists between me and another person, everyone around me implicitly understands this to be inappropriate, negative, and morally inferior, even shameful behavior. Personally, I might also feel ashamed. This fundamental understanding of the results of going into visible conflict with someone may partially explain the conflict-avoidance tendency of many Chinese people.
But does avoiding demonstrative conflict mean there is peace? No. Someone whom I interviewed for my dissertation research described a general understanding of reconciliation in this way,
Reconciliation refers to no longer having explosive conflicts; everyone seems to be at peace with each other, but the problems haven’t been resolved. They have simply been left there, concealed. One never knows when the issue will explode again.2
Most likely very few of us are consciously aware that we view conflict through a lens, whether a Confucian-tinted lens or another cultural lens. What we believe about conflict has been so internalized that most people simply label it as just the way things are. As Christians in China study biblical peacemaking, many have had personal “aha” moments as well—they now see that conflict starts in the heart, and that avoiding addressing the root heart issues in order to “avoid conflict” only results in the heart conflict remaining. Learning that there are ways to address conflict that has already started in the heart but not yet exploded has been good news indeed.
Note: This blog post contains content from Jolene’s yet to be published book: Changing Normal: A New Approach to Conflict, Face Issues, and Reconciling Relationships.
Image credit: Courtesy of the author.
Having spent much of the time between 1997 and 2020 committed to working overseas in China, Jolene Kinser now lives in southern California. Jolene works as a global Chinese peacemaking ministry developer and educator and as a peacemaking specialist under the South Pacific District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Jolene …View Full Bio
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